The Awestruck Entrepreneur: Meet CEO Samuel Bouchard
Samuel Bouchard built a robotics company in a city more known as a tourist destination, but the Quebec City native had the entrepreneur's optimism to know that he could find enough small- and medium-size businesses around the world that could benefit from his automation. The kid who couldn't stop building has turned into a humble CEO putting down important foundations in an industry that's quickly building upwards.
Robotiq was founded after lab-mates Samuel Bouchard, Vincent Duchaine and Jean-Philippe Jobin decided to commercialize some of the mechatronic work they and their professor Clément Gosselin had created at Laval University in Quebec City. That was in 2008.
At the time of writing this article, Robotiq counted more than 30 full-time staff, and our Grippers and sensors operated in 30 different countries. We felt it was time to start telling the stories of our team members.
Robotiq’s CEO Samuel Bouchard charts the company’s course. With the robotics industry evolving so quickly, predicting a future path can be tricky. But the uncertainty of the industry is offset by certain overlying principles that buttress the business. Samuel’s credo for Robotiq is that it provides intelligent design and simple-to-operate products. He carries on his sleeve an admiration for first-time users, small- and medium-size businesses and the DIY set who transform his technology into completely new machines.
Samuel has a knack for keying into customers’ automation needs, seeing where the industry has grown and where it seems wanting, and choosing the right technology from his pool of engineers that he believes will catch fire in the market. He’s a CEO with humility and optimism, born it seems from the same sense of wonder that had him at hello in astronomy, and materialized into engineering and then robotics; his entrepreneurial spirit was nurtured by his business-minded parents and given a boost by a successful real estate disruptor he and his siblings founded; and his leadership shows itself in the authority he brings to his blogs and in his media appearances, and through the magic he elicits from his team.
Meet: Samuel Bouchard, CEO.
The planets and stars gave 18-year-old Samuel Bouchard his direction. “It was an astronomy course that really hooked me,” he says of his love for science. “The scale of the universe and, at the same time, how closely this immensity is tied to our own nature really inspired me to go study engineering physics,” he said, despite his interest at the time in business, architecture and industrial design. He later began an internship in a robotics lab at Laval University. “And that was it.” Robotics won him over.
Can you find Samuel and Jean-Philippe in this 2002 picture taken at the Laval University Robotics Lab?
When he was younger, Samuel was not the science fair type. More the do-er than the show-er. He had both energy and adult mentors in spades, and seemed to prefer to build things.
“When I was a kid, we always worked pretty hard during summers and on weekends, doing construction, maintenance and woodwork.” His grandfather and uncles were “awesome mechanics” and he was that neighborhood kid who got to drive a bed frame down the street, powered by a chainsaw motor. Even at a young age, he tinkered and worked to improve the way his machines ran. “I was always trying to find ways to make them work more efficiently, trying to find the trick to make them go faster.”
As Robotiq’s CEO, he tries to find those same types of efficiencies. One example of that is the recent capability for his Grippers to record motions. A company worker, acting like a puppet master, will guide it through the movements it then repeats. That emerged from the need to improve on what had been a longer process involving the punching in of trajectories.
While there were mechanical influences in his childhood, his family home in the Quebec City area was a veritable business. His father worked as a real estate agent, his mother alongside doing the administration, and when he and his siblings grew up, they began a company themselves, the well-known commission-free real estate network DuProprio.
“Entrepreneurship is just a normal way of life for me. In fact, I had only one job interview in my life, at a local fast food restaurant (Chez Ashton). And I didn’t get the job.” He also learned how dull and difficult some forms of manual labor can be, having picked squash under a hot New Zealand sun after he finished his undergraduate studies. “Kudos to the people tough enough to keep doing it; I did not last long on that one!”
His first robotic project came during those undergrad days, assisting a graduate student who had designed a fast-moving crane. Samuel was fascinated by seeing equations materialize. He also learned that things always take longer than you think. Samuel’s university professor and mentor, Clément Gosselin, shared with his student another important lesson that guides Samuel today: Embed intelligence in the design.
To explain that, Samuel breaks down robotics into its three tenets: mechanics, electronics and software. He says making sure your mechanical design is sound will mean a lot less work for the software engineer down the line. The intelligence lies in the design of the mechanics, he says, something he first learned at the foot of his grandfather and uncles, who were “making machines out of nothing.” Later he learned those same lessons for robotics from Prof. Gosselin, Canada Research Chair in Robotics and Mechatronics at Laval University in Quebec City, whose own robotic Gripper patent would launch Robotiq as a business in 2008, when Samuel was completing his PhD.
Samuel met Vincent Duchaîne and Jean Philippe Jobin in that robotics lab. They commiserated over seeing so many friends either forsaking their talents in robotics because they chose to stay in Quebec or pursuing their dreams in the field by leaving, something neither Sam nor the others would accept. So the three decided they would have to design their own jobs and began a start-up with the end-of-arm tool their professor invented.
There have been some periods of self-doubt. “As an entrepreneur, you have nothing but your will at the beginning. There are a lot of no’s or even worse, I don't cares, which can hurt the morale. But the toughest battles are the ones happening in your own mind. As you lack information literally on every decision that you need to make, you're always debating internally on what to do next, always wondering if it's the right thing to do.” But he says he got used to that uncertainty.
“Being in business is never dull: lots of highs and lots of lows. Some lows last longer and make you wonder ‘Why am I doing this?’ until the next high arrives and fills you with exhilarating energy.”
He says his partners and his team pitch in for each other when tough moments come up, such as the deaths of Jean-Philippe’s father in 2010 and his own mother in 2013.
He’s heartened by the stories he hears from customers, many of whom are first-time users of robots. Primarily small- and medium-size business owners, they tell the company how they have improved their operations thanks to Robotiq technology. Samuel witnessed one such small business owner in Madrid, whose company makes rollerblade wheels. The owner had been working manually until he purchased his first robot. “Now every morning he drinks his espresso, watching his robot working – and really enjoys the moment. That's the kind of story I like. The robot really changed this person’s life for the better.”
Robotiq, says Samuel, has made inroads into several industries, most notably metal fabrication, plastics and electronics. He credits some of that success with his products’ combination of flexibility and ease-of-use, and notes that many of his devices have simple on-off switches. The extensive education Robotiq does on their site, with eBooks, blogs and how-to videos, has also had an impact on the various industries coming on board, says Samuel.
The Quebec City native loves being part of the groundswell happening around the world in an industry that appears to be constantly besting itself. “It's thrilling to feel the robotics industry accelerating and to be part of it.”
He enjoys his various roles at the company, which include observing the trends large and small in the industry, writing blog reports on new technologies, regularly planning the company’s future, acting as a bridge between customers and R&D, and motivating employees to stretch into new directions.
Samuel, 36, lives with his wife Anick raising four children, Léo, 8, Albert, 6, and five-year-old twins Chloé and Ellie. His children happily tell their friends that their father makes robot hands, prompting Samuel to come to their classes to demonstrate the Grippers. Videos of his children accompany him on his trade show travels, as do some personal gifts from them. “Often I'll find a little surprise artwork in my bag, which always inspires me when I unpack in my hotel on the other side of the globe.”
The entrepreneurialism and hard work from his childhood and the power of technology for a new generation recently came into sharp contrast. His father had an idea he thought would give Samuel’s children a sense of that work ethic he had passed down to his son. He had a large wood lot and said to the children: “I'll give you firewood, and you'll sell it to the neighbors during winter and make some money."
When he started to pile the wood onto the trailer, Samuel felt overwhelmed. “I realized that there was A LOT of wood. I was thinking of that pile of wood in our carport for the whole winter. So I took my kids aside and said ‘Let me show you something: the power of the Internet.’" Samuel got them to pose on top of the trailer full of wood and then posted the picture with a message on Facebook that read: "Trailer full of firewood, $500, delivered today.” He got 10 requests and delivered the wood by the end of that day.
“My dad was kind of mad but I reminded him and the kids of another of my dad's lessons: "Good calculations can be just as good as hard work."
Calculations have become a big part of Samuel’s job. With changes in collaborative robots and new players regularly coming on the scene, Robotiq needs to stay ahead of the competition and adapt to needs in the market. He regularly plans for the next three to six months, since hitching a technology onto a period any later than that can lead to obsolescence.Samuel sees a world where more and more industries will benefit from the robot’s ability to repeat tasks and to employ a vast memory. He says this dovetails well with the human capacity for intuition and creativity. Like the 18 year-old who was blown away by the vastness of the universe, Samuel sees in this field a similar vastness, with lots of space for the company to explore. “Robotics is a big universe".